Keys to a Successful Career – Freelancing in the Language Industry

When we think of success in the Language industry, we often think of individuals like Holly Mikkelson, who not only found success for themselves but taught and mentored many of us to grow within the industry as well. I recently had an opportunity to interview Holly Mikkelson, an esteemed Professor, mentor, colleague and friend. As a professional Translator and Interpreter who has built an impressive career as a freelance interpreter and translator, her answer to what she attributed her success to was enlightening and humbling.

Professional Development

Holly Mikkelson attributes some of her success to her dedication to her professional development, not just her academic schooling, but the many hours of personal study and research she dedicated to each project. She stated that “if I were getting started now, I would not have made it.” This was particularly surprising to me as her education alone seemed to cast a shadow on the preparation I had when I started. She continued, “after MIIS, my consecutive and simultaneous skills were excellent—my consecutive was even stronger than it is now, since I do not use it—… my vocabulary was the problem.”

How did she enhance her own skills?

For each project she worked on, she was able to share a long list of tools and resources she credited for the success and quality of her work. She laughed as she shared how at the start of her career she prepared for translating and interpreting in the legal setting by ordering textbooks and dictionaries from suppliers who often questioned what need she could possibly have for those materials. She also fondly shared how a Caterpillar Inc. product manual in English & Spanish played an instrumental role in her ability to provide quality translations for one of her clients. However, she stated that “those were different times, and everything is different now.”

What does she recommend now?

According to Mikkelson, “a lot has changed since I would order those books… there are a lot of resources on the internet.” She recommended taking college courses for other professions (i.e. paralegal courses), watching trials on YouTube, and visiting the web pages of court administrations, hospitals, etc. in search for glossaries and other resources. She stated, “a lot of students [like medical or law school students] post videos on YouTube.”


When asked if she could attribute her success to one thing, what would it be, Mikkelson responded, “luck.” But what is “luck” and where do you get it? Despite all her preparation, she believes that the primary key to her success was “being in the right place at the right time… knowing the right person.” Throughout her career, many, if not all, of the major leaps came about because she met the right person or was recommended by a dear colleague at the onset of a new project. For example, she attributes her opportunity to work for the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) as a freelancer to the recommendation of one of her colleagues who had recently secured a staff position.

Is networking & building a professional network as important today?

According to Mikkelson, “yes, it is just as important, if not more, as when I got started.” Building a network of acquaintances is key to getting an opportunity to demonstrate your skills and knowledge. Although building a professional network can seem time-consuming and may not reap many fruits at the onset of a career as a freelancer, over time, it can produce results with very little effort on the freelancer’s part. Today, many, if not all, of Mikkelson’s work opportunities came through referrals. In fact, during the interview, Mikkelson shared that despite her lack of efforts to actively seek out new projects after retiring from her position as a full-time professor, her network is such that she is “even busier than before.”

What do you attribute for your success in the language industry? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Special thanks to Holly Mikkelson for agreeing to the interview and sharing her insights.

Holly Mikkelson, Professor Emerita of Translation and Interpretation, was a member of the faculty at Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey (MIIS), either as an adjunct or full-time, from 1976 to 2019. Her main areas of specialization are Spanish/English legal translation and court interpreting, though she has taught general classes in both translation and interpreting. She is certified as an interpreter in California and federal courts. She is also certified as a translator by the American Translators Association (ATA).

Mikkelson created the acclaimed Acebo training manuals for court interpreters. She is the sole author of Introduction to Court Interpreting (Routledge, 2016) and a co-author of Fundamentals of Court Interpretation: Theory, policy and practice (Carolina Academic Press, 2012). She co-edited The Routledge Handbook of Interpreting with Professor Renée Jourdenais in 2015. Her articles have appeared in numerous peer-reviewed journals. She has also served as a consultant on court interpreter training and testing, and has testified as an expert witness on court interpreter standards of practice

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About Gabriela Siebach

MasterWord Services, Inc., a woman-owned business established in 1993, is ranked in the Top 20 largest language service providers in North America by the market research firm, Common Sense Advisory. A top-quality provider of industry-specific language solutions, the company works with more than 300 clients in Fortune 500 companies. These include energy and engineering, healthcare, life sciences, government, technology, insurance, finance, education, and non-profit organizations with requirements in more than 250 languages and across four continents. MasterWord’s strength lies in understanding its clients’ unique challenges and tailoring custom solutions for success. The company delivers a broad spectrum of solutions for clients operating in a highly regulated, fast-paced, deadline-driven environment, always striving to exceed our clients’ expectations.